The long hot summer and the silly season, as the British tabloids call the month of August, is upon us, and what better place to be than, say, the French Riviera. I know, I know, the French are not la specialité du jour nowadays, but what the hell, it beats sitting behind a long line of SUVs trying to get to the Hamptons. Mind you, there are traffic jams galore on the Riviera also, but with a difference. Unlike the wall of steel that moves at a snail’s pace east every Friday and west on Sunday on the Long Island Expressway, the Riviera traffic zips about small, picturesque villages, around big towns like Nice and Cannes—and when I say zips I mean it. French drivers, like their Italian neighbors, are all frustrated Formula I pilots and put the pedal to the metal at every opportunity. They shout, gesticulate, insult, but burn rubber. None of this 55 mph nonsense and no giving way on the left lane. If you don’t move toute de suite and let a faster driver pass, heaven help you when he gently bumps you at 85 mph.
So much for driving. There is also yachting, which is what I’m doing, and here things are much gentler. Collisions at sea are far more expensive, although less bloody, and as money is more important than life in chic resorts among the nouveaux riches, people tend to be less aggressive.
For me, what the Riviera is all about is nostalgia. On the Cote d’Azur, nostalgia is a way of life for us old timers. It is as if the sunny gaming haven needs to remind her lovers that it was not always Day-Glo hang-gliders, Lycra-clad boy-toys, slot machines, and sewage—not to mention the black leather and blacker sunglasses worn by gay cruisers who scour the sidewalk cafes and expensive outdoor nightclubs.
No, it wasn’t always like that. Disembarking from le Train Bleu, one was met by the wild scarlet splash of poppies and violet waves of the wisteria. There were no high-rises back then, only geraniums starting from every crevice. There was little traffic, and the sea was cleaner than anywhere else in the Mediterranean.
I first set eyes on the place in 1952. My parents booked me on the Constitution, the liner that did the milk run from New York to Cannes. After eight years of war in Greece, and four years of prep school in America, I literally thought I was entering Shangri-La. The place reeked of pine, blossoms, wine, and sex. For a 15-year-old, it was—to use a modern barbarism—totally incredible. Women without tops, people with white ducks and beautiful yachts, Errol Flynn walking about, Ari Onassis yelling banco in the casino: this was heaven on earth, and I swore to myself right then and there that I would return. The moment I could get the hell out of the prison my parents had consigned me to, that is.
When in 1957 I did go back, I immediately began to look for Dick Diver, the tragic Fitzgerald character of Tender is the Night. Alas, I never found him, but there were some pretty good imitations. Gianni Agnelli, the Fiat supremo and Italy’s greatest Casanova, desperate to have fun but—unlike Dick—always conscious of his duties and responsibilities. Prince Dado Ruspoli, the best-looking man of the time, hooked on opium, kind to rich and poor, reading and writing poetry on his boat, the Bilitis. Linda Christian and Bella Darvi, two of the most glamorous and sexy women on the planet, daily taking on new lovers and snorting cocaine. Bella committing suicide the day her money and looks started to go.
This was the Fifties, when the Riviera had once again become the magnet for the world’s elite, a place where Warner and Zanuck, Beaverbrook and Dubonnet, Niarchos and Onassis, Picasso, de Stael, Matisse, Chagall, and Graham Greene were the names to drop, if one was inclined to do so. No Puff Daddies, no J.Lo’s, no Russian oligarchs. The Agneta, Gianni Agnelli’s boat, the Zaca, Errol Flynn’s sailer, and the Creole, Niarchos’s magnificent three-masted schooner dominated the beauty stakes, while the Christina, Onassis’s floating palace, and Sam Spiegel’s Mahlane closed out the field.
If yachting was the focus of social life during the daytime, at night bronzed shoulders rubbed together in the villas and mansions of various tycoons and princes. Back in those halcyon days, the war of egos was fought on the green felt tables of Monte Carlo and Cannes casinos.
Life was very simple back then. Nobody seemed to have heard of guilt, and fun for fun’s sake was pursued with a vengeance. The war had been over for 12 years, Europe had rebuilt and recovered, and I was 21 years old. I lived in the Hotel du Cap, where Dick Diver had first met Rosemary Hoyt, and the rent was less than $15 per night. It was one big party for three long endless months, or so it seemed.
The end came rather suddenly, in 1973 with the oil shock. Now it’s good-bye to all that. The place has turned into a sweaty, overbuilt, and overcrowded hellhole, but late in the afternoon, as I come sailing back towards the harbor of St. Tropez, the smells and colors are the same, and for a while I dream that I’m once again 21 and the place as magical as it once used to be.